Current and former KTOO employees spoke at the public radio station’s board meeting Monday night, alleging unfair treatment from management.
Former KTOO and Empire reporter Lisa Phu said she was offered the job as news director of CoastAlaska, but ended up not taking it because KTOO management said it would not support her in the job due to a conflict of interest.
Phu, who is currently a part-time public information officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, had previously been a reporter for the Wrangell Sentinel, KSTK, KTOO and the Empire for a total of eight years. Her year and a half of part-time work with the city, she explained, was KTOO’s reasoning for declaring her hiring a conflict of interest.
She accepted the CoastAlaska job July 10 and received a call from CoastAlaska Executive Director Mollie Kabler informing Phu that KTOO would not air her work. Kabler did not comment when reached Tuesday, saying she doesn’t comment on personnel matters.
This development, Phu said during her statement, was from an email from KTOO President and General Manager Bill Legere. In the email, Phu said, Legere explained that KTOO would not air Phu’s stories and would not provide her a place to work at the station because of a conflict of interest. This conflict, Phu explained, was due to Phu’s time as a public information officer with the city.
Phu ultimately declined the job, she said, because she wanted a healthy work environment and a situation where she could do her best work.
Legere didn’t comment on the specific instance, saying he doesn’t comment on personnel matters. He did say, in an interview Tuesday morning, that KTOO has set a precedent over the years of not hiring reporters who formerly worked at the Alaska Legislature or at the CBJ.
“We think it’s really important to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest or conflict of interest itself in our staff, and it’s important that we retain editorial control of everything we put on the air so we can stand behind it and support it,” Legere said.
Phu said Tuesday afternoon that she believed this claim of a conflict of interest “was likely masking KTOO’s real motives.”
“It may have something to do with KTOO wanting to exert power or be in control of who was hired,” Phu said. “I also believe it was partly personal.”
Phu, who began working at KTOO in 2013, resigned in February 2016 because she disagreed with upper management’s decision to hire Jeremy Hsieh as news director at the station. Hsieh declined to comment, and was not present at the board meeting to hear the concerns raised. Hsieh is a former Empire employee.
Phu said the CoastAlaska hiring committee had asked her about her job with the city, and Phu told them that as CoastAlaska news director, she would quit her job with the city, wouldn’t be directly reporting on the CBJ and that she could recuse herself from any reporting that involved the CBJ.
Kabler told the Empire there is no policy about candidates who might have a conflict of interest.
CoastAlaska instead hired Jacob Resneck, a former KTOO reporter. Resneck declined to comment on the situation.
The radio station has been a staple of the Juneau community for decades, and receives a great deal of support from the community. Legere said that the way KTOO operates is an issue of public importance.
“As a community institution, we should always be examining what we do and listen to the public, whether it’s criticism from the inside or from the outside,” Legere said.
Phu received feedback from NPR and the Society of Professional Journalists, both saying that they see nothing wrong with hiring a person who is a former public information officer. She also told the board that this is not an isolated case of unfair treatment in the workplace.
“While KTOO’s actions confounded and astounded me and others, I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Phu said in her statement to the KTOO board. “This type of behavior is what I sought to escape when I left KTOO.”
Bullying in the newsroom
Phu was not the only former or current KTOO reporter who was present at Monday’s board meeting. Longtime KTOO reporter Matt Miller, who said he started full-time with the station in 1998, spoke about his observations and personal experiences with a newsroom environment he said was unhealthy.
“I know of, or I have witnessed, belittling, antagonism and bullying and other inappropriate behavior against other current and former news employees,” Miller said. “Some I know are afraid to speak up even though they vowed never to work here again. They still fear retribution even though they are now far away from Juneau.”
In an interview Tuesday, Miller attributed this culture of belittling and antagonizing employees to Hsieh and Assistant General Manager for News & Public Affairs Tim Olson, and said upper management has allowed it to continue. Legere said he hasn’t heard anything from employees that suggests to him that there’s a problem.
“Nothing out of the ordinary, in my view,” Legere said. “There’s always give and take with employees in any organization.”
Hsieh did not comment and Olson was unable to be reached.
Miller said that during his annual review this summer, he wrote about the issues that he had with leadership at the station. Those concerns, Miller said, were promptly ignored. It was not a formal complaint, Miller acknowledged, and he said he has not filed a formal complaint but decided to verbally express his concerns after hearing that Phu was sharing her story.
Soon after his concerns were submitted, Miller said, he was stripped of most of his reporting duties and is currently the host of Morning Edition.
“My job description was changed, restricting my abilities and duties,” Miller said during his statement. “I was bullied into accepting that new description within 24 hours or I would be terminated. That, of course, as you all know, is retaliation.”
Legere said Tuesday that there are no pending or recent employee grievances at KTOO. KTOO does not have a human resources department, and the CoastAlaska personnel policy manual states that “personnel-related problems are best resolved informally between the employee and supervisor or the employee and appropriate department or division head.”
A formal complaint goes to an employee’s superior first, according to the policy manual, and can eventually work its way up to the KTOO Board of Directors. A grievance against a general manager or executive director of a radio station goes straight to the board of directors, according to the CoastAlaska personnel policy manual.
KTOO board members said they were shocked and upset by the allegations raised by Phu and Miller. They entered an unplanned executive session after the meeting, seeking to develop a plan for what to do next. They scheduled a special meeting for Sept. 28, Legere said, for the sole purpose of evaluating the comments made and establishing a plan for the future.
Phu said she will not be taking any legal action, and said she hopes her comments Monday will spur change.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.